20.2.18

Hillbilly Elegy

I borrowed JD Vance's best-selling Hillbilly Elegy from a friend (thanks, Juzzy!) after seeing numerous recommendations online, and indeed the cover of the edition I read is thick with gushing praise, including the claim that it 'explains Brexit and the rise of Trump.'

That's a big call for a fairly little book, and one I don't think is entirely justified. It's also, as far as I can tell, not the intention of the writer.

JD Vance is a young writer, only about thirty, but he tells his story with clarity, insight and keen  awareness of the connections between the personal and the political. He grew up in Ohio, but from 'hillbilly' stock: fiercely loyal, resentful, a law unto themselves. JD's childhood was marred by domestic violence, parental substance abuse and instability. He was saved by the unstinting love and hard work demanded by his grandparents, which saw him eventually graduate in Law from Yale. This is a postcard from the heart of Trump's America, though as Vance is a conservative at heart, he ultimately lays blame for America's malaise on a lack of personal discipline and responsibility rather than systemic political failures.

Some parts of Vance's story were utterly foreign to my own life -- screaming parental fights, wild spending on showy consumer goods, using a pay-day lender to survive till the next pay cheque. But other parts resonated with my own experience. Vance ends up at Yale and realises he has entered another world, one where he doesn't understand the rules of the game.

He was one step ahead of me when I landed at Melbourne University Law School -- I didn't even realise there was a game. Networking, making contacts, befriending lecturers who might give you a recommendation -- I just didn't know that this was part of what university was supposed to give you. But to play the game, you have to understand that the game exists. I was totally clueless. But like Vance, I was the first member of my family to attend university; there was no one to tell me how things worked. It's not enough just to gain access to the institutions of power (interestingly, I'm also now reading about Elena's experience of the same situation in Elena Ferrante's Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). You also need to navigate the unseen rituals, dress properly, speak properly to the right people, ingratiate yourself, submit articles to the journals that count. And nobody explains that stuff: you're supposed to just know. These are the unseen barriers that shut off opportunities to the poor, even if they scrape into the bastions of the elite.

15.2.18

One Would Think The Deep

Claire Zorn's third YA novel, One Would Think The Deep, won the CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year last year, and I can see why. Wow. Zorn's writing is amazing -- clear and powerful, unpretentious but resonant, a perfect voice for young adult writing.

But jeez, it's bleak stuff. As the book opens, Sam's mum has just died suddenly. The only relative he can contact is his estranged aunt Lorraine, who grudgingly accepts him into her chaotic household with his two older cousins, hostile Shane and bouncy Minty, who is an extraordinary surfer. The surfing scenes in this book are the best I've read. Sam is smart and sensitive (he adores Jeff Buckley's music), but he's also self-destructive. When the black hole inside threatens to overwhelm him, he looks for someone to fight. Will Sam destroy his tentative relationship with Gretchen, possibly the best thing that's ever happened to him? And will he find out what blew his once close family apart?

Set in 1997, the music of the nineties is threaded through the book. Tumbleweed, Shihad, Jeff Buckley, Chili Peppers, Tori Amos -- these were all the artists who were around when I was working in the music industry and the book brought back some powerful memories. I can also well remember the wave of shock and grief that rippled through us all when Jeff Buckley died -- followed by the unseemly scramble to package up and market every scrap of music he had ever recorded. Lucky Sam didn't really just how tawdry the music business could be, or he'd be even more cynical.

13.2.18

Rockhopping

Next month in the Convent book club we are looking at the winners of the 2017 CBCA Awards. Trace Balla's Rockhopping was the winner of the Younger Readers' Book of the Year category (an award I was also honoured to win with Crow Country a few years ago).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's like a cross between a picture book and a junior graphic novel, with a deceptively simple cartoonish style which contains lots of marginal detail: birds and insects, wildflowers and trees. Clancy and his uncle Egg take a hike through Gariwerd (the Grampian mountains near Melbourne), with detours and adventures along the way. Indigenous placenames are foregrounded, with European names given in parentheses. While Clancy and his uncle are not Indigenous, Uncle Egg's best mate is Aboriginal, and gives snippets of local knowledge and mythology which are respectfully received by Clancy and Egg. There is humour and danger, and Clancy discovers he is more resourceful than he thought.

Of course I was always going to enjoy a book set in Victoria, and especially when Clancy and Egg set off from near Merri Creek, my own local waterway. Designed for younger readers, this book will be enjoyed by curious travellers of all ages.



12.2.18

The Midnight Folk

The copy of John Masefield's The Midnight Folk that I found secondhand was published in 1957 -- it cost 3/6! -- but the book was first published in 1927. I picked it up because Susan Green had mentioned it as a favourite childhood book, and during the Dark Is Rising twitter read-through, several participants talked about The Midnight Folk and its sequel, The Box of Delights, as formative fantasy texts.

The Midnight Folk is a strange little book -- not so little, actually, it's over 200 pages in fairly small font. Young Kay Harker embarks on a quest for the lost treasure entrusted to his ancestor, Captain Harker, which has been stolen and mislaid several times over, and in so doing he tangles with witches and talking animals, walks into portraits and meets many peculiar characters, human and non-human.

Several times I was reminded of other books, which shows how influential this novel has been. Kay tries on bat wings and otter skin which enables him to fly and to swim, which reminded me of the Wart's educational experiences in TH White's The Book of Merlyn. The witches, and especially Mrs Pouncer with her wax face, foreshadowed Roald Dahl's witches. The talking portraits took me straight to Hogwarts.

I'm not sure this book would appeal to a modern audience, though it would make a great read-aloud -- there are heaps of opportunities for funny voices, and it's actually pretty humorous, though I suspect children might need to be led through some of the jokes. I found the whole treasure plot quite confusing, though I must admit pirates and treasure aren't really my cup of tea. I'm glad I've read it though, and I will keep a look out for Kay's further adventures in The Box of Delights.

8.2.18

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name is the second volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels series, which I borrowed from the library (there were many reservations ahead of me, so I had to wait a while). This copy was obviously well read, with a cracked spine and soft pages -- lovely to handle!

At first I had some trouble getting back into the story. Who were all these people again? The cast of the 'neighborhood' had faded from my memory and I found it hard to pick up the threads. It also takes me a while to adjust to Ferrante's style: the long, complex sentences, the detailed dissection of emotion and, in contrast, the almost complete lack of physical description.

But soon I was wrapped up in the story -- the complicated web of interpersonal relationships, love and hate, jealousy and obligation that criss-crosses the neighborhood; and the equally complex inner lives of the two young friends, Elena and Lina/Lila, at the centre of the narrative. When the story opens, Lila is newly married (at sixteen!) but the relationship soon founders. The most compelling section of the novel centres on a summer holiday at the beach on Ischia, where Elena, Lila and another friend meet up with a boy from the neighborhood who Elena has always loved. The painful account of Elena's repressed feelings, her growing conviction that Nino also cares for her, and the inevitable betrayal when Nino and Lila begin a clandestine relationship, is absolutely gripping and agonising. It brought back terrible memories of unrequited love from my own youth. From there I raced to the end of the book, and I've just reserved the next volume!

This is a novel of contrasts. For the first time the story creeps out from the narrow bounds of the neighborhood (apparently based on the Rione Luzzatti district of Naples, which is tiny) to explore other areas of the city and the island of Ischia. Lila, so tempestuous and unpredictable, seems more brilliant and gifted than conscientious Elena, and yet it's Lila who finds herself trapped in her marriage and the business of grocery store and shoe factory, while Elena escapes to study in Pisa, opening the door to a yet wider world.

At the start of the novel, Lila seems to have it all, wealth, love, glamour and power, while Elena is her timid shadow; by the end of the book, the scales have switched and Elena is the successful one, while Lila appears to have lost everything.

Yet again, I've turned to Google Maps and images to give me a visual sense of the setting. Thank God for the internet!